Costa Rica's Buzzy Nicoya Peninsula Is a Natural Haven for Creatives

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In August 2020, in the middle of lockdown, Costa Rica announced its 30th national park. The former prison island of San Lucas, off Puntarenas on the Pacific coast, is a haven for howler monkeys, bats, spiders, snakes, deer, pheasants, hammerhead sharks, manta rays, and sea turtles, and now will be one as well for hikers and history buffs eager to learn about the Alcatraz of Central America.

This news was a powerful reminder that the planet remains a chief priority, above and beyond the pandemic, and of the country’s single-minded commitment to protect its natural environments—for its own sake and to mitigate against climate change. Ecotourism has played a lead role in this, helping fund the preservation of the ethereal cloud forests of Monteverde and the remote jungles of the Osa Peninsula as well as popular destinations like the Tortuguero and Manuel Antonio national parks. And while countries around the world have taken an approach to tourism similar to that of Costa Rica, perhaps nowhere else do citizens play as important a role as authorities. Conservation, here, is a national cause.

Just 140 miles from the capital, San José, and a motorboat hop from San Lucas is the Nicoya Peninsula, where, over the past two decades, locals and an international nomadic crowd have come together to create a community of nature-loving forward-thinkers. Their home, a verdant limb in the country’s northwest, has a string of beautiful beaches and a handful of townships where pura vida (the national mantra for living a simple life) is second nature. From Tamarindo (a.k.a. Tama) down to Santa Teresa and Malpais are beautifully designed villas and small hotels, surf shacks and schools, artist and craft studios, restaurants championing Costa Rican cuisine, and beachside bars where DJs mix salsa, soca, and calypso.

All this is also only ever a step away from full-blown wilderness, and that informs the way everything is done. Here are five of the movers, shakers, thinkers, and makers on the scene:

Gabriela Valenzuela-Hirsch is an artist and designer. Her work has been showcased in the Design Museum in London and the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York.

“I’m a Tica [Costa Rican], born in San José to a family of artists and creators. I came back to Costa Rica in 1996 as part of a kind of prenup. Before we married, my husband, Jerry, made me commit to a life plan that would allow him to retire young so we could escape to a special place to surf for the rest of our lives. His fashion business in New York, Go Silk, was booming. He had dressed Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson, Glenn Close. But when he turned 40, we sold everything and went to seek the perfect surf break. We bought a beautiful piece of land right on the beach, steps from the water.

“Tamarindo was pretty raw—dusty roads, with no phone lines and barely any infrastructure. It was challenging, especially as my daughter was still a baby. We quickly established the basics along with other expats: a grocery store, a school, and a pharmacy. We were living in the core of a Blue Zone, with fresh fish and authentic non-GMO blue corn, where the drinking water out of the tap has 7+ pH. When we went back to the Hamptons during summer vacation, I realized we were achieving a sense of well-being in Costa Rica that people in the urban rat race could only dream of.

“While Jerry was surfing, I founded Heartwood Design—a cooperative of artisans to assist men and women with limited resources to turn their traditional folk art into high-end products. These are sold around the world, creating a source of income and pride for the makers. And I love the intimate creative process too, carving intricate three-dimensional modern sculptures. Wood is one of my favorite mediums. I play with tones, where the grains unfold like a tale, inspiring curves and projections.

“I’m humbled every day to wake up in paradise. I do my chanting and my sun salutations, then go to my studio and work there all day long. I consider myself an eco-modernist artist, as I only use up-rooted and fallen trees in my work, and I’ve been involved in reforestation programs here in Costa Rica since the mid-’90s. Nature is paramount for all of us. My work is to protect and defend Mother Nature.

“Other countries and cities talk about embracing doughnut economics [pinpointing the sufficiency of resources we need to lead a good sustainable life]. Well, we’re already doing that; Tamarindo is the first community in Latin American to be fully regenerative. This is transformative for the planet.”

Esteban Oreamuno, from San José, has been opening hotels on the Nicoya Peninsula for two decades—he was most recently the general manager at Kasiiya Papagayo and still works closely with the hotel.

“When I moved to Santa Teresa, in 2001, nobody in San José knew what it was like or even where it was. Access was difficult, the roads were in bad shape, and it was a seven-to-eight-hour drive from the capital. There were three little hotels at that time: Hotel Frank’s Place, Trópico Latino, and Milarepa. A few Ticos came to hang out on the beaches—six miles of deserted white sand—or to surf. Then Nicoya pioneer Susan Money opened Florblanca, and it put Santa Teresa on the map.

“In 2017, I heard about this new eco beach resort, Kasiiya Papagayo, that was being planned, and I was blown away. The setting was extremely wild, with lots of birds and animals including monkeys, coatis, anteaters, and sometimes a puma; two private beaches; a rare and very special dry tropical forest; the best snorkeling in Costa Rica—you see whales, turtles, and stingrays up close—and a sublime sunset. You can scuba dive, hike on the Pacific View Trail, take off on drives up the windy roads.

“The owner [Moroccan French entrepreneur] Mehdi Rheljari’s concept was to leave the land 100 percent untouched. The architects, AW2 from France, did an amazing job avoiding any impact on the scenery and keeping the infrastructure low-scale and lost in the greenery. There’s no concrete, the majority of the materials used for construction being recycled wood and fallen trees, and there are just seven tented suites, camouflaged in 136 acres of wilderness. They’re comfortable, spacious, cooled by coastal breezes. I love the upscale tent concept and the fact that it is totally off-grid. All the bath products are locally made and 100 percent organic. Most of the food served is sourced from the province of Guanacaste. There’s a naturalist guide who is a brilliant teacher on the dry forest flora and fauna and the marine life of Punta Gorda. And there’s a resident healer, Yamuna, who trained in India and is an expert in chakra cleansing. He practices at the spa, which is hidden in the forest and reached by a hanging bridge.

“When COVID-19 hit, the property was only two years old. With no guests, we focused on our neighbors. People had little work and a lot of time on their hands. So we made a deal with them: We gave them materials, and they gave their time to help improve the town. They did really wonderful work, painting the school and the bus stops with murals and fixing up the church roof. They felt useful again, and so did we. We donated masks and food too, and it connected us even more to neighboring Nuevo Colón—where many of the staff have their homes.”

Griet Depypere, grower and hotelier, co-owns Cala Luna hotel in Tamarindo with her sister, Els Depypere, and former brother-in-law, Antonio Pilurzu.

“I came to Tamarindo in 1992 with my sister and then brother-in-law. We fell in love with this quiet, nature-rich, peace-loving country, with no army, good medical and educational systems, and potential. We started to build Cala Luna two years later.

“I’m from a Belgian family with culinary passions, and 15 years of living in Italy and lots of travel has made me a foodie for life. Working with the young Costa Rican agro-ecologist Carlos Piñeda Soto and with our chefs, we’ve come up with tasting menus that make local produce the star of the show. We mostly use what can be grown here. To the classic base of all Costa Rican dishes—peppers, coriander, onion, and garlic—we’ve added coyote cilantro, chay, wild anise, uvita, caroa, tamarind leaves, madero negro flowers, and beach asparagus. We’ve also been inspired by traditional ingredients: sorghum, lots of root vegetables, pigeon peas, and blue and purple corn. We have our own seven-acre organic vegetable garden, beehives, and medicinal herb garden. All this helps keep our carbon footprint small. We’ve massively reduced waste too, with no plastics, and we try to use every part of our ingredients—for instance, we ferment pineapple peel to create our own pineapple vinegar and use a subsequent fermentation for sourdough bread. And we make a veggie version of a traditional dish called carne mechada from plantain peel.

“We work closely with local fishermen to get away from the heavily commercialized species, so you won’t find tuna or lobster on our menu. Instead we choose meaty congrio, buttery Pacific mackerel, and fresh, zingy spotted grouper. We source mussels and other shellfish from the Palito community on Chira Island, a women-led program supported by the University of Costa Rica. Believe it or not, none of those fish can be found on the commercial market.

“Carlos, who’s from Santa Cruz—inland from Tamarindo—is one of a new generation of organic agronomists emerging in Costa Rica. He came on board three years ago, in the month before he graduated. He’s amazing, fully responsible for the success of our kitchen garden. Through him we’ve become actively involved in community groups. It’s been vitally important during the COVID-19 crisis. What we have here really is a food Eden.”

I realized we were achieving a sense of well-being in Costa Rica that people in the urban rat race could only dream of

Juan Diego Evangelista is a surfer and surfboard shaper from Argentina; at Cheboards, his studio in Tamarindo, he has pioneered building toxic-free balsa-wood surfboards.

“I was born in Mar del Plata, Argentina. It’s a beautiful city on the ocean with a small surfing scene of its own. I started to surf every summer and loved it. But during the winters, the South Atlantic gets cold, and I soon learned to travel to other places to surf. When I was 25, I came to Costa Rica for the first time and met my wife, Mareike. After more traveling, we settled in Tamarindo in 2012.

“It’s almost always sunny here, and the sea is warm, with great waves and offshore winds. I thought: This is a cool place to live. Travelers are always passing through, looking for waves and a good time. There are as many kinds of surf breaks as there are hotels or restaurants. We have two boys, aged four and six, and all of us surf. It’s a paradise for families. We are right in the middle of nature, and the little ones learn to enjoy the simple things of life. And if you’re a serious surfer, you can hit the Caribbean and the Pacific on the same day.

“I’ve always loved to work with my hands. As a kid I played with Lego a lot and made the figures little wooden boards so they could surf. This grew into my passion and craft, and today I make surfboards to spread the fun to others. I use 90 percent organic materials and specialize in working with Costa Rican balsa. It’s a light wood with unique qualities: It floats easily and is flexible, both things surfers like. It grows locally, so we save money and carbon emissions.

“The surf is very alive—and it’s for everyone. Our community here is pretty diverse. There are surfers of all ages, from toddlers to 80-year-olds, from all nationalities and backgrounds. You see stand-up paddleboards, foils, longboards, and shortboards in the water. We’re always organizing competitions and festivals; the big summer event is the Tamarindo International Surf Film Festival. Off Tamarindo, the crystal-clear waters and good barrels are irresistible. Getting barreled is the ultimate goal of every surfer. It’s like getting lost in time. When the weather’s sunny and the water’s clean, it’s like heaven.”

Bernal Díaz, biologist and farmer, has traveled throughout the Nicoya Peninsula and Costa Rica and has worked as a naturalist and expedition leader for National Geographic Expeditions and World Wildlife Fund for 20 years.

“People often wonder why Costa Rica has become this global biodiversity hot spot. It’s a long story but has something to do with us being isolated from the colonial administration for centuries. 

“Costa Rica was not always this model nation. Deforestation was a serious threat until the national parks were established in the 1950s. We learned, thanks to pioneers like biologist Mario A. Boza, the first director of the country’s national park service, that we could sell a tree a hundred times to tourists instead of only once to the lumber yards.

“I was born on a farm near the town of Grecia, surrounded by birds, plants, rivers, and water that you could drink wherever you stopped to rest. My father was my inspiration. He had the idea to leave parts of our land unchanged so sloths, snakes, and monkeys could live alongside us. I learned to identify species as a young boy and aimed binoculars far more often than any gun, except when I helped my brother on a scientific project that involved taxidermy. It was natural for me to become a guide and show everyone else this world.

“I spent a lot of time in the cloud forests of Monteverde, and it was botanists and naturalists going there that led us to develop ecotourism hand in hand with science. We didn’t let the tourists come first and spoil everything, as has happened in many parts of the world. As ecotourism grew and became a major income source, people became aware that the environment and ecology were essential to development.

“Nicoya is definitely Costa Rica’s beach paradise and has the best weather, but the southern Osa Peninsula takes the prize for wildlife and habitats. It’s awesome, partly because of the Golfo Dulce, a tropical fjord that’s very deep at the center. The landmass was carved out when Pangaea separated, and the biodiversity is incredible—species from the Amazon and even as far away as Madagascar can be seen here. It’s where Costa Rica’s remaining jaguars and tapirs find shelter, beneath a canopy full of hummingbirds, trogons, and toucans.

“There are places in Costa Rica that are still pretty much undiscovered: Very few people have been to Cocos Island; it’s in the history books because of stories of treasure and pirates, but it’s also a bio-treasure, the site of an immense web of marine life as well as species of birds endemic to the island. But I encourage visitors to spend time with the human species too. Go to small towns like Zarcero, Grecia, or Atenas, and you’ll experience the real culture of the countryside. We are an open, supremely hospitable country. We are a place where people routinely live beyond a century. I put it down to the way we are with visitors and with our neighbors—always ready to learn from others, and teach them too.”

This article appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.

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